The UW-La Crosse women’s basketball team spent the early part of this week focused on itself.
While that might not sound like a novel concept, after seven weeks of grinding through one of the most wide-open WIAC seasons in recent memory, getting a chance to take a breath and spend a couple hours refining what the Eagles want to do instead of homing in on an opponent was a welcome change.
La Crosse (16-9) earned that luxury by claiming the No. 2 seed — the program’s best ever — in the WIAC tournament, which started on Tuesday. The top two seeds receive first-round byes and host semifinal games. After a pair of practices keyed on what they need to do better, the Eagles can now shift focus to third-seeded Oshkosh, whom they host at 7 p.m. Thursday.
The Eagles toppled the then-No. 3 Titans 57-51 on Jan. 6, but Oshkosh exacted revenge with a 61-49 win at Mitchell Hall on Feb. 10. UW-L coach Karen Middleton said to beat the Titans again will take a great effort on both sides of the ball.
“They’re such a disciplined, organized team,” Middleton said of No. 23 Oshkosh (20-5). “They play hard. They do the right things.
“Championship moments come down to getting stops and scoring even if your opponent knows what you’re doing. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
The extra rest the Eagles got this week, albeit just an extra day off, but at this point in the season it was a respite. Consider that the four days between the regular season finale and Thursday’s game will be the longest break between contests for the team since December.
Senior forward Elise DeNoyer, the team’s leading scorer (13.1 points per game) and rebounder (7.2 rpg), knows from experience how valuable the breather is during tournament.
“It’s huge, especially knowing from last year, going back-to-back with just one day in between is hard,” DeNoyer said Tuesday. “An extra day to just rest our legs and just better ourselves is huge.”
UW-L’s practice on Monday, by all accounts, was one of the team’s best of the season.
To beat Oshkosh, La Crosse has to match the defensive energy it has shown when playing its best basketball of the season. A big part of that will be the utilizing the depth the team has established — nine players were on the floor at least 7 minutes per game during conference play.
“Our freshmen coming along through the year, getting some minutes in tough situations so they can learn, that was big” Middleton said. “The depth’s going to be big as we keep moving forward.”
Ava Kramer has been one of those key freshmen to make a contribution.
She didn’t start any of the team’s 25 games this season, but averaged nearly 20 minutes per game on the floor as Middleton’s perimeter defensive ace. Kramer never seems to stop running on the hardwood — she hustles off the bench to check in when her number’s called; she flies around both ends of the floor, unafraid to throw her 5-foot-6 body on the floor for a loose ball or into a defender to draw a foul; she even runs down the sideline for high-fives when she’s subbed out.
She averaged 10.2 points in conference play, and tallied a team-best 41 steals (1.64 per game).
“I think (aggressive defensive is) really fun. I’ve always thought it was fun to do that. I always get excited,” Kramer said Tuesday.
An Elk River, Minn., native, Kramer scored the winning basket in her high school’s MSHSL Class AAAA state semifinal win, and then helped in winning the state championship. Kramer said that run — a 32-0 one at that — helped get her ready for the college game, but there was still an adjustment period.
The Eagles are trying to qualify for their first NCAA tournament since 2011. Depending on how things shake out on Thursday, they could host the game that determines the WIAC’s automatic bid to the national tourney. That would be a big stride for a program that just two seasons ago missed the WIAC tournament.
“We all want to win for each other, and I think that’s why we’ve been as successful as we have the last couple years,” DeNoyer said. “Being able to do it for each other, it makes it mean that much more.”